The Food Network created a food-obsessed nation, with legions longing to cook professionally. Recently, more women are making the leap into the foodie fire, popping up in restaurant kitchens in ever-greater numbers. We searched Miracle Mile restaurants and spoke with several ambitious women chefs; some at the top of their game; some on the rise.
Karen Hatfield owns, with her husband Quinn, La Brea stalwarts Odys + Penelope, Sycamore Kitchen and the soon-to-open downtown bistro, The Mighty. “I went to the Los Angeles Culinary Institute [now closed]. I was young and didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I liked to cook. I thought maybe I’d become a food stylist.” Karen’s unformed plan crystallized when she got a job at Spago.
Working under Wolfgang Puck in a great kitchen gave her a “wow” moment, and she knew a professional kitchen was where she belonged. Famous for her pastries and desserts, such as Odys + Penelope’s chocolate rye pie with peanut crumble, Karen also works closely with her husband Quinn to “create new dishes, collaborating on all the menus,” and she mentors cooks.
At the newly opened Drago Ristorante at the Petersen Automotive Museum, line chef Gabriela Diaz is making her mark. She is one of the many who loved watching cooking shows, because “cooking always made people so happy!” Her interest gelled when she took over home cooking duties when her mom was pregnant and couldn’t stand the taste of her own food. Soon after, she entered the annual C-CAP (“Careers through Culinary Arts Program”) college scholarship cooking competition, and she won a scholarship to culinary school. Now at Drago, she primarily works the salad and pizza stations, where her favorite dish is the burrata salad. “It’s a pretty plate. Every time I make it, the outcome of that salad makes me super happy.”
Pastry chef Margarita Manzke is owner of République with her chef husband, Walter. She started young in the food business; as a child she worked in her parents’ restaurant in the Philippines. “I knew I wanted it. I loved the energy in the kitchen.” At 21, Margarita left to study at Le Cordon Bleu and the Culinary Institute of America. Although drawn to pastries, she also wanted to learn the savory side of cooking, leading to stints at Spago and Patina.
“It helped me on the pastry side. I look at things differently,” Margarita says. When creating a new dessert, she often starts with one ingredient, but traveling provides additional inspiration. “We ate at this Taiwanese restaurant, Bao, in London. They served us peanut milk. So simple, but so good.” Inspired, she experimented with a classic Filipino dessert, halo halo, using peanut milk, tapioca, chocolate milk and banana.
Commerson restaurant’s Pastry Chef Liz Sencion notes, “I grew up watching my Mexican mother make incredible meals out of seemingly scraps. It was not until culinary school that I realized how talented she was and wished that I had paid more attention to the cooking lessons she tried to give me.” Nonetheless, by high school, Liz realized she wanted to pursue cooking. At culinary school, her general love of food grew into the passion for pastries she demonstrates at Commerson. “I am responsible for creating, developing and implementing the dessert menu. Experimentation is key to our growth and success.” Liz particularly likes experimenting with ice cream, evident in her honey parsnip ice cream served with apple crostada.
By Helene Seifer